By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
Some of us became aware of primatologist Frans de Waal back in 2008 through his concept of inequity aversion:
[W]e did a study in which capuchin monkeys received either a grape or a piece of cucumber for a simple task.
If both monkeys got the same reward, there never was a problem. Grapes are by far preferred (as real primates, like us, they go for sugar content), but even if both received cucumber, they’d perform the task many times in a row.
However, if they received different rewards, the one who got the short end of the stick would begin to waver in its responses, and very soon start a rebellion by either refusing to perform the task or refusing to eat the cucumber.
This is an “irrational” response in the sense that if profit-maximizing is what life (and economics) is about, one should always take what one can get. Monkeys will always accept and eat a piece of cucumber whenever we give it to them, but apparently not when their partner is getting a better deal. In humans, this reaction is known as “inequity aversion.”
That seems relevant to the great questions of political economy before us today.
Here’s a recent presentation from de Waal at Ted, that focuses on morality, altruism, and empathy, also relevant today — especially if you’re not a neo-liberal or some sort of sociopath.
The video shows the “inequity aversion” experiment with capuchins mentioned above, as well as other experiments with primates and elephants (!). There’s an entire transcript at the TED site, but here is de Waal’s conclusion:
So let me summarize. I believe there’s an evolved morality. I think morality is much more than what I’ve been talking about, but it would be impossible without these ingredients that we find in other primates, which are empathy and consolation, pro-social tendencies and reciprocity and a sense of fairness. And so we work on these particular issues to see if we can create a morality from the bottom up, so to speak, without necessarily God and religion involved, and to see how we can get to an evolved morality.
Well, for what this worth, and I’m not a scholar or a philosopher… I think both morality and immorality have survival value, or else they never would have both arisen (“from the bottom up”) in nature. It does seem to me, however, that if human beings were “naturally good” (whatever that means) than historical events like The Battle of the Somme, say, would never have happened. “The problem of evil” has a WikiPedia entry, but “the problem of good” does not. Perhaps that’s a good name for the project that de Waal is working on.
NOTE Hat tip Aquifer for the video.